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Book Review: The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

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The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford stands as one of the most striking pieces of fiction I’ve read so far this year. It’s a coming-of-age novel and a statement on dysfunctional families that partially masks itself as a creepy mystery story. It starts out with a face in the window, a prowler in the neighborhood. The time is the 1960s and the location is Long Island, during a kinder, more gentler time when a family’s secrets and failings were kept religiously guarded behind closed doors.

I was blown away by the atmosphere and eye for detail Ford packs into his writing. This was my first book by this author, and I was immediately impressed. He possesses the keen vision of Stephen King and doesn’t flinch when it comes to exploring personal issues. I got the feeling that a lot of what’s in these pages is biographical, and if it isn’t, I’d be willing to bet Ford knew a family like this.

Almost. Ford presents a normal abnormal family, then leavens the whole mix with a hint of the supernatural. There’s a ghost and the strange powers little sister Mary has, and the eerie presence of Mr. White, a diabolical villain.

But when Ford paints the picture of the family so realistically, most readers are going to get sucked right into his world and forgive the author all of his transgressions. I swallowed the supernatural bits without hesitation because the family were exactly like people I’d grown up with. The father is a workaholic holding down three jobs to get the family by, and so he barely spends any time with his wife or kids. The mother is an alcoholic, and though I would have desperately loved to know why she was, sometimes you just have to accept that there’s no answer. The grandparents, Nan and Pop, are on hand to help out, but they’re limited.

The narrator, who never named himself, has an older brother named Jim who’s daring and audacious, and everything a younger brother could ever dream of being. Mary is the little sister and as odd as they come, while possessing a matriarchal power that both boy are in awe of and seek to protect. As all-knowing as Mary is (and she smokes cigarettes too, which is weird but fits in well with the character), she’s also an innocent.

I sat enthralled as I turned the pages, captivated first by the mystery and the threat, then by the narrator’s school projects (especially his impromptu clay moon on a stick!), his ongoing battle with a teacher, and his views of the family and how they worked for and against each other.

One of the most original things about the novel is Botch Town, a microcosm created by Jim. It’s a replication of the neighborhood where they live. As they sort through the mystery of the prowler, they move the individual figures around to simulate the movements of their neighbors. Unfortunately some turn up missing. Mary has the mysterious power of knowing where they are – even when they’re dead.

The threat of Mr. White grows on every page. The kids hunt him through the neighborhood, but he quickly figures out who they are as well and the chase swaps ends. Ford does a lot with the narrator’s daily travails as well, putting him in just as much peril from bullies as the prowler/murderer.

I enjoyed this book immensely, but I wanted to know more about some of the characters. I suppose that happens when they appear so real on the page, so I don’t want to take anything away from the writing. Ford’s other books include award-winning fantasy and Edgar-winning mysteries. He’s definitely a writer I’m going to read more from.

The Shadow Year is an excellent novel that doesn’t fit within the restraints of conventional fiction. The book marches to the beat of its own drummer, and the cadence will rivet most readers to the pages either through the elegance of the imperfect past or the chilling menace of a killer on the loose with children in harm’s way.

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